Colleges and companies aren't looking for "well-rounded," they want "T-Shaped."

With graduation season in full-swing, it’s the perfect time for us as parents to evaluate the ways in which we are preparing our children for the college admissions process and beyond -- including life in the real world.

For as long as I can remember, the notion of raising well-rounded children was the “best practice” for parents. This was the approach taken by the majority of families: enroll your children in a wide variety of activities and measure success in the exposure to a spectrum of skills rather than the mastery of a single skill.

When it came time for college applications, the logic followed that a student’s best shot at being accepted to a top school was demonstrating a breadth of involvement in extracurricular activities.

While that may have been true for some time, a growing school of thought (pun intended) believes that a student demonstrating depth may give them the best shot in the application process. In other words, students don’t have to be good at everything, instead they should be really good at the few things they enjoy doing most.

The T-Shape

Another way of thinking of this is through the T-Shape model:


Popularized by IDEO Chief Executive Tim Brown, the T-Shaped person combines a vertical domain expertise with a horizontal propensity for collaborating with others. In the workplace, the T-Shaped person is an empathetic expert -- they bring an expertise in a field, say graphic design or data science, and combine it with an enthusiasm for other people’s ideas and specializations.

The T-Shape model has been gathering momentum in the higher education world as of late. Michigan State University hosts its own conference dedicated to fostering T-Shaped students, while the Career Center at Colorado College writes, “it’s more important to be ‘T-Shaped’ than to be ‘well rounded.’”

Raising a T-Shaped Child

While there is no one tried-and-true method for raising a T-Shaped child, there are two key tenets to keep in mind: depth and collaboration.

To build depth, pay close attention to the activities that your child is involved in and double-down on the ones that they’re the most excited about.

To foster a collaborative attitude, make sure your child is involved in activities where they have to work together with -- whether that be team sports, band, or competitive clubs like robotics.

Lori Shao